I never knew my dad’s coworkers by their true names. Each railroader was assigned a handle based on his first and middle initials.
My dad was Dog Shit. His best friend was Mad Dog.
Dog Shit and Mad Dog were an unlikely duo. Dog Shit was a dry-humored, easy-going person. Mad Dog was a cyclone of thought and action.
Take, for example, Mad Dog’s ongoing stuffed-animal project.
Freight trains don’t move as quickly as you might think, so whenever their train hit a bobcat or a coyote Mad Dog would sprint to the back of the train, wrench in hand, and wait until his car passed the maimed critter. He would then thunk the animal over the head to make sure it was good and dead and scoop it aboard the train.
My dad would watch wordlessly, taking sips of coffee from his Thermos, which had “MAD DOG NO!!!” spelled out in electric tape.
The railroad carrion was later taken to a taxidermist to be posed and preserved. Over the years, Mad Dog had amassed an incredible collection.
But for his weirdness, Mad Dog’s heart was always in the right place.
When my dad’s cancer took away his ability to walk, Mad Dog started coming by to keep him company. On the weekends, he would lift my dad into his truck and drive around the farm to fret over fences that needed mending, creek beds that were widening and herons that were eating the fish in our pond. Being able to keep a running inventory of things that needed to get done gave my dad something to work toward. He was determined to walk again, and when that happened he was going to fix the fences, put some more gravel down by the creek and fend off those thieving birds.
One day while I was home for spring break, Mad Dog pulled up into our driveway.
“Hi, Carrie. Is your dad home?”
“No, he had to go back to St. Louis. He hasn’t been doing so well.”
“I am so sorry to hear that. But hey, it’s good that he’s gone, because I have a secret.”
“Yeah! But you can’t tell him. You can’t tell anyone!”
“Do you have a picture of him?”
“Of my dad?”
“Yeah! I need a picture of him.”
“There’s this girl down in Piggot. She can paint anything. I mean anything. I found a turtle on the tracks the other day, so I’m going to take the shell down to this girl and have her paint his picture on it.”
“Oh. Wow. That’s a great idea. He will love it.”
“That’s just what I was thinking! Anyway, I need a picture of your dad. This girl can paint anything, and I mean anything. I’m going to have her paint a picture of your dad playing his piano. And then she’s going to spell out “Piano Man” underneath the picture.”
“Yeah. Wow. He really will love it.”
So I fetched the photo. A few weeks later, Mad Dog returned, bearing a box turtle’s shell emblazoned with a bearded man in an Indiana Jones-style hat seated at an upright piano.
“Mad Dog, what is this?” my dad asked.
“It’s you, Dog Shit.”
“Oh. It is.”
“This girl down in Piggot, she can paint anything.”
“Yes. Yes, she can.”
I don’t know where the shell is now. It could be buried somewhere in the Room of Doom, where my mom stores everything that has a purpose she can’t quite figure out. It also is possible that the dogs made off with it.
But though the shell has disappeared, I always think of it when I see my dad’s headstone. It is the same size and color as the others in the cemetery, but as you get closer you’ll see the piano keys carved into the top. Below my father’s name, you’ll see the words “Piano Man.”